Jeff Skilling's Jailhouse Reflections: Why Enron's Ex-CEO Thinks He Got Convicted

Jeff Skilling's Jailhouse Reflections: Why Enron's Ex-CEO Thinks He Got Convicted
Jeff Skilling's Jailhouse Reflections: Why Enron's Ex-CEO Thinks He Got Convicted

People in Houston and Americans everywhere are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court's ruling in Skilling v.United States, which will decide whether former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling will serve out his 24-plus year sentence, get a new trial, or, if one of the statutes he was convicted under is invalidated, possibly get a new, reduced sentence. The soonest the opinion could come down is Thursday, and the latest is the end of this month.

In the meantime, Fortune has published a generally sympathetic profile of the man, describing a jailhouse interview with a very human Skilling. The disgraced ex-executive reports being lonely, staying focused on keeping healthy while in prison (he does yoga, walks four miles a day and eats a low-carb diet), and fears missing out on his sons' adolescence. He also describes what he considers three key mistakes he made that led to his conviction.

First, he admits he would have been smarter to have taken the Fifth, and not testified in his own defense. Skilling now thinks his testimony was too big a help to the prosecution. Indeed, his lawyers told him to stay silent, but Skilling just couldn't help himself: He wanted to tell his side of the story. Many another defendant has had the same lament.

Second, Skilling thinks he could have mounted a PR campaign that would have helped him win his case. He laments not having a comprehensive media strategy, and not maintaining relationships with "key industry advocates in and outside the media," both of which he somehow believes could have changed public opinion about Enron and himself.

While he's probably right about taking the Fifth, on this second point, he seems delusional. I can't imagine a PR campaign that could have helped. Enron then was BP today. Like Skilling then, BP isn't going to be able to spin its way into a jury's good graces through a clever media campaign. Indeed, Skilling's argument for a new trial would be undercut if he'd actually had a major PR campaign in motion: His argument is based on the idea that the jury was too biased against him to render a fair verdict.

Third, Skilling suggests avoiding sarcasm, claiming his infamous "they're on to us" comment in 2001 was just that: sarcasm, badly misunderstood. Generally speaking, avoiding phrases that make great soundbites for the prosecution, whether, sarcastic or not, is a good idea. Nonetheless, in the moments that such comments are made, few speakers are typically thinking about what a prosecutor might do with those words down the road. After all, these comments are typically made while the alleged crimes are occurring, not after the fact when there is a prosecutor to worry about. So I'm not sure how useful his "avoid sarcasm" suggestion is. It's really just a case of 20-20 hindsight.

Of course, if the Court throws out his convictions on the basis of jury bias, Skilling can let all of those regrets evaporate and try taking the Fifth during round two.